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Steve Coogan and Judy Dench – what can go wrong, really? Not much, and Stephen Frears manages a beautiful thing: he forces Coogan into a serious, somehow sad role of former journalistic and political hotshot, now demoted to serve as hired hand of human interest story-telling. But he does not allow Coogan to lose his sense of humour, his “The Trip”- or “Alan Partridge”-sharpened weapon of mocking himself and the rest of the world with a flick of the tongue. And at the same time, Dench is not just cast as the melancholic mother searching for a son long lost, as an old-fashioned Damsel not really keeping up with the pace of modern times. Occasionally she shoots arrows of humour, filth or honesty at her surroundings that make the whole scenery stand still, mouth gaping open, aghast … WTF?

It takes both these iconic actors at their very best to hold up this quite tricky story: while starting as a straightforward quest for Ms Philomena’s son that was torn out of her arms when she was nun in a monastery, this story arch is surprisingly soon resolved and deflated. Only to be replaced with a wider narrative about the cruelties girls like her were subjected to, and about the ignorance and soullessness and outright evil that the institutions involved represented – and still represent in their unwillingness to stand up to their past.

The best bit about “Philomena” is that wherever the danger of eruption, of spectacle lurks around the corner, of violent and hateful final confrontations, Stephen Frears shouts “Apage!” and takes the mellow route, the realistic route that is not less painful, but in line with the attitude of this particular elderly lady who has certainly spent all her rage and fury long ago – if she ever had any to begin with.

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